INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — DragonSpeed expected a stressed-out Sunday as the tiny team tried to bump its way into the Indianapolis 500. Instead, the car owner and driver savored a leisurely morning drive to the speedway knowing they are locked into the big show.
Ben Hanley, a rookie from England, put the No. 81 car safely in the Indy 500 field with one solid qualifying run late Saturday. It freed the fledgling IndyCar team to begin prepping for the May 26 race even as some of the bigger-budget, better-known organizations scrambled to fight for the final three starting spots.
“Coming back this morning, the first feeling was relief,” team owner Elton Julian said. “Pulling into the parking lot, knowing we didn’t have to go out there and fight for the position we really thought we were going to have to, so that has allowed us now to clean up the mess in the box and start to prepare like a normal team.”
DragonSpeed has competed in just two of this season’s five races with Hanley, who finished 18th in the season opener at St. Petersburg and 21st at Barber. Hanley got his first real taste of ovals during a test in Texas where he spent the first half of the day just getting acclimated to the difference between other cars he had driven and the faster IndyCars.
His lack of experience and DragonSpeed’s youth showed all week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Hanley lagged at the bottom of the speed charts. Among those expected to miss the race, DragonSpeed topped nearly every list.
Then, on Saturday, he looked like a natural.
He struggled on his first two runs, but the 34-year-old Hanley climbed into the cockpit with about 10 minutes left in the session and posted a four-lap average of 227.482 mph. He’ll start 27th, the outside of Row 9, in next week’s 33-car race.
While Hanley was in the race, two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso of McLaren and James Hinchcliffe, the 2016 Indy pole winner and Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports championship contender, were both left vying for a last-ditch spot in the field.
It could be the start of something even bigger for the promising 12-year-old team that has been steadily building its reputation in sports cars and endurance races.
Even before Hanley made a splashy Indy qualifying debut, Julian had already announced the team would pare back its sports car efforts to focus primarily on expanding its IndyCar program. Julian said the team will compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans next month and intends to race cars at Spa and Brazil, with entries at Daytona and Sebring also possible.
But the team intends to use the second half of the IndyCar season to build toward next season, and they’re off to a stronger start than team insiders predicted.
Hanley’s surprising qualifying run afforded DragonSpeed some relief from the pressure-filled days leading into the 500.
“Because we’re so small, this gives us an extra couple of days, or at least this extra day,” Julian said. “It means everything to our preparation for the race, so this is huge.”